HL Deb 22 March 1979 vol 399 cc1287-98

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. I am not quite certain whether it would be better to speak at this stage or on the Question, that the Bill do now pass? I had originally understood that there might be an Amendment, but none has been put on the Order Paper, and I therefore think that it would be best if I said what I have to say now. I apologise for detaining your Lordships yet again on this Bill—my third speech on the subject in 18 months—particularly as it may not reach the Statute Book in this Parliament. How I envy the wild plants and wild creatures who have now been conserved with the sunshine of the Government's approval, which has not been given to my Bill!

The nub of the Bill, frankly, is a twofold aim—to remove the National Heritage Fund from Treasury control and to place it under independent trustees who can act quickly in an emergency and at a time when it would be impolitic for a Government to do so. I first introduced this Bill in 1977, in the month of June, and I withdrew it in the face of a very chilly Government response, intending to reintroduce it and ask for a Select Committee to consider the matter. Meanwhile, a Select Committee in another place jumped in and itself chose to examine the National Heritage Fund. It recommended precisely the main points in my Bill, together with certain other excellent suggestions which fall somewhat outside the scope of legislation. This was followed by an Early-Day Motion in another place, which was signed by 120 Members of all parties. These events set the alarm bells ringing, a faint tinkle reached the Government's ear, and they decided that they might perhaps have to take some action.

The moment therefore seemed ripe to revive my own Bill and test the temperature. I still find there is no particular enthusiasm. I may say that I have had warm support from other quarters, and particularly from the Press. Indeed, I have seen no unfavourable comment on the contents of my Bill. The Times in fact published a third leader warmly commending it. Unfortunately, that was the day that The Times died. I trust there was no link between those events, such as cause and effect. I delayed the Committee stage from then until February of this year, hoping that in the intervening months the Government might make up their mind whether they intended to adopt my Bill, as they could have done, or produce their own Bill.

All we have now is a White Paper. I know that there are no votes in fostering the national heritage, but, none the less, that does not absolve a Government from their duty. Faced with the Select Committee's report, and having rebuffed the stated opinions in your Lordships' House on my Bill on two occasions, the Government have had to do something. Events have shoved them rather unceremoniously into hasty action, and without much conviction or enthusiasm they have produced a White Paper. Before I say anything else about the White Paper, I should like to comment on and commend one particular point, which is the acceptance of the Commons Select Committee's suggestion that, in future, any purchases by the National Heritage Fund should be identified as such. I should like to add one further hope, and that is that the trustees, in their discretion, should consider identifying some of the fund's acquisitions as being the national war memorial of Dr. Dalton's original and very imaginative, but frustrated, intention. That was the finest part of his original suggestion, and, alas!, it has taken more than 30 years to bring it anywhere near fruition.

To turn back to the White Paper as a whole, we are now well into March, and we have no Government Bill as an alternative to mine. The White Paper is mainly a repetition of known facts plus a red herring about the "in lieu" proposals, on which I do not myself intend to comment. I think the noble Lord who is to reply will agree that he has had a had Press, and has very little support for his proposals. There is also—and I wish to be fair to the White Paper—a complete reversal of the Government's previous attitude to the main principles of my Bill, which they have now accepted without giving any justification for their total change of view. The Government have turned a complete and grudging, if somewhat slow, somersault, and have reneged on all the arguments loyally deployed by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, on the Second Reading of my Bill in June 1977.

So there we are: we have a White Paper and no Government Bill. When will the Bill be introduced? All we know is that, in the words of the Minister, Officials are meeting more than once a week to draft it". There is enthusiasm for you, my Lords! At that rate, when shall we get the Bill? Will it be before the end of June, before the Election, or even before the Election if it is postponed until October? I doubt it. Also, that statement is rather difficult to reconcile with another sentence which the Minister employed. I do not think he quite realised the import of what he was saying when he added: After full consultation, we shall have the opportunity to see what the Bill produces". That rather gives the impression that he would not be aware of the contents. I am sure he did not really intend that.

My Lords, we have had no help whatsoever from the Government on this Bill, and I very much regret that. I should have been very happy if they had taken over my Bill and got it towards the Statute Book, because then we should have had some action earlier. It would seem that there will be no debate on the White Paper, and I think this will be the last opportunity to express our views. We have few differences between my Bill and the main principles of the White Paper, but I shall outline one or two minor differences.

Briefly, I and those who think like me are against appointing the trustees from designated areas to represent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as is suggested in the White Paper. Before you know where you are, you will have the statutory woman and the statutory trade unionist, and if you are to have a small body then I believe that simply will not work. Again, we think the trustees should be appointed by the Prime Minister and not by the Secretaries of State. That would give them the far higher status that this task would deserve. I think that the trustees should have power to acquire and hold properties. If they can acquire monies, as set out in the White Paper, why not properties? I do not agree with the White Paper's limitations on the trustees' freedom and authority. Some restraint is necessary, but the proposals in the White Paper are excessive.

So there we are, my Lords. It is disappointing to me. The chances of progress in this Parliament are very slender indeed. To my noble friends on the Front Bench I would say that if, after the Election, they find themselves on the other side of this Chamber, I shall give them three months' grace. Then, if they do not act, I shall introduce my Bill again. To the noble Lords who have supported me, and particularly to my noble friend Lord Cottisloe, I offer my warm thanks and would say only this: We shall get our Bill eventually. I beg to move that this Bill be read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Reigate.)

4.18 p.m.

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I hope my noble friend Lord Reigate will give me, not three months', but three minutes' grace on this occasion, to congratulate him on the persistence with which he has pursued this issue—and a very important issue it is—and also on the stoicism with which he has borne the considerable disappointment of it not being likely to get on to the Statute Book this time round. But I can say to my noble friend that I believe that, whichever Government are in power, his work and the work of others who are deeply concerned here is now irrevocable. I am sure that something will happen; and of course we would hope that it would be sooner rather than later.

The late Lord Attlee, when he was Prime Minister, I think, said that one of the many ironies about your Lordships' House was that it was the only place in the British Parliament where a Communist found himself sitting. I think he would also have enjoyed the historical irony that the war memorial pursued so sedulously by Dr. Dalton should find its resurrection, so to speak, at the hands of a Tory Back-Bencher of impeccable credentials like my noble friend Lord Reigate. I think the whole House would recognise the work that he has done on this and the merits of his Bill, and all that we would say is that we are extremely sympathetic to it and hope to make a Government and to put either his Bill or something close to it into action without too much delay.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I greatly welcome the National Heritage Bill and the Government White Paper, both of which are strong indication that steps are being considered to combat the erosion of the national heritage. I speak to some extent as spokesman for the National Gallery of Scotland who, in keeping with their native character, are urging a note of caution. Although welcoming the White Paper, the trustees are anxious that the present procedures whereby pre-eminent works of art are given to the nation in lieu of taxes should not be taken off the Statute Book until those responsible for operating the procedures are convinced that a satisfactory alternative has been evolved. They believe that the "in lieu" procedure should continue to work until such time as new machinery, which is practical and fast-moving, is ready to operate.

Perhaps there are one or two points that I might add. The procedures involved in a private treaty sale are, in my experience, not uncumbersome. In order to enable the new machinery to work efficiently we should not in the early stages lumber it with all the work that is involved in the acceptance of, the pricing of and the finding of homes for, preeminent works of art. There is a danger that the new trustees would be over-faced—and over-facing, particularly where artistic matters are concerned, which need fresh minds, can lead to bad judgment. Over-facing with inadequate staff would lead to slow procedures which would discourage the vendors from selling to national institutions rather than through the sales rooms.

Up to now, a great deal of work has gone on behind the scenes, and with amazing speed works of art have been evaluated from the pre-eminence point of view, depending on the demand for them from any particular gallery. At one time, a work may be pre-eminent in the eyes of London and not pre-eminent in the eyes of Edinburgh. It would be unwise to put these complicated researches all at once into the hands of a new body like the National Heritage Fund—and certainly not until it has been armed with an efficient staff and possibly with subcommittees to support it. As it is, what an appalling amount of ground the trustees will have!—covering painting, sculpture, militaria, land, houses. The mind boggles. "A jack of all trades is a master of none", as the saying goes. We all have known fellow-trustees who waste valuable time pontificating on subjects that they know little about.

In welcoming the proposal to appoint seven trustees, I stress the need for careful selection of candidates and for the trustees to be chosen not so much on grounds of a wide knowledge, although a general interest is essential, but for a profound knowledge in one of the aspects—fine art, architecture or money—described in this Bill. My own experience as a trustee stems from my time on the board of the National Galleries of Scotland under the chairmanship of the late Lord Crawford. To a large extent, the task of recommending trustees was his. He made his recommendations with great care. Thanks to him, important gaps in the collection were filled with the aid of moneys derived from the "in lieu" system. For example, Quentin Massey's "Portrait of a Notary", Elsheimer's "I1 Contento" and, since then, Guardi's "View of Venice". Today, we have a most comprehensive collection. It is true that we have no Michael Angelo and there are still important gaps to be filled. We have no Stubbs. So the National Heritage Fund will have a part to play.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, in his speech about this Bill and about the drafting of the Bill eventually to be presented to Parliament, said that we are going to have complete consultation now. It is not for me to determine which Bill gives way to which on this particular racecourse. There is no evidence yet that the Government Bill is to be a starter. Whatever its chances may be, the noble Lord must recognise the need for holding discussions between interested parties now. Discussions should include the museum authorities, the Standing Commission and the National Trust. With regard to land, the Government would be wise to consult with bodies like the National Trust, the Historic Houses Association, the Historic Buildings Council and with some of the many organisations concerned with the land, like the Forestry Commission, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission. It may be that at some stage the Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds may be involved.

So many aspects need to be considered, and not least the question of chattels in smaller houses, chattels which are in danger of being sold to raise money which is needed because of heavy taxation and the cost of living. I must declare an interest as the owner of an historic house which is too small to be opened to the public and to live in at the same time. For owners like me, with few liquid resources, there is no alternative but to sell the contents. If things go on as they have lately, we will end up with houses with bare walls and no furniture. This is one example among the many wide-ranging problems with which the National Heritage Fund will have to deal. There is no point in trying to field national treasures without first trying to stop some of the causes of their disappearance. Otherwise, it is like bolting the stable door after the horse has escaped.

One possibility recommended by the National Trust for Scotland would be for the National Heritage Fund to have the power to give grants to a maintenance fund set up by owners when dedicating their houses and chattels to avoid capital transfer tax. Many owners deterred from dedicating their property because of lack of money would be helped by grants towards their maintenance funds. A final salient point which I should like to make is that, in my view, the National Heritage Fund should enable the leaving of works of art in private hands. This matter was touched upon in the White Paper. It may be that the National Heritage Fund, after accepting a work of art in lieu of tax or through private sale, should be allowed to recommend it remaining in the place to which it belongs. In the passage that the noble Lord knows so that I will not read it, the Government imply that it may be possible to examine the problem of extending indemnity to cover loans for pictures which are remaining in houses.

I would encourage this proposal. There will perhaps be risks and, certainly, a need for security and careful custodianship. On the other side, the advantages would be that concentrations of works would not go on filling up galleries in the big city centres; instead they would be distributed throughout the country. Visitors to stately homes, large and small, would benefit and would go home refreshed and exhalted, and their children better educated. Through this part of their work, the National Heritage Fund would feel that the great works of the past are not just being preserved but are being shown in situations which set them off to their best advantage. They would be stopping the trend towards bare walls of country houses and contributing to the enlightenment of the people of this country who would be able to absorb works which were life-enhancing and ennobling to their minds, spirits and hearts.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, I absolve the noble Earl, Lord Haig, from having made a Second Reading speech at this stage, which is not appropriate, but I know that he has been snowed up in Scotland and was not able to get here for the Second Reading. As I explained at Report stage, the Government will shortly be introducing a Bill to implement proposals in its White Paper, A National Heritage Fund. This will be a wide-ranging measure to reflect the wide-ranging nature of the Government's proposals. In this situation a Private Bill is out of place and the Government would certainly not want it on the Statute Book. We should not support such a Bill in the House of Commons, when we are about to give Parliament our own proposals. The Government and the noble Lord are journeying in the same direction; but we shall, as is customary in a journey of this importance, take our own train.

The noble Lord told us at Report stage that he is not one to take umbrage. This is a subjective comment which I shall not challenge, but his general attitude certainly seemed to me to be verging on the "umbrageiferous", if that be the right word. I certainly do not feel that the Government's attitude deserves any complaint. This is a most important issue, involving large sums of money—indeed, large sums of new money—for the arts and for the heritage. We in the Government, far from scraping our feet—if that is the right word.

The Earl of GOWRIE



Dragging our feet! We have studied assiduously the report of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Expenditure of the other place, and have responded with a White Paper setting out our intentions. The noble Lord will have noted that our proposals include the most important recommendation of the sub-committee: that is the setting up of a special heritage fund with independent trustees.

The chairman of the Environment Sub-Committee, Mr. Arthur Jones, MP, wrote to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in warm terms, thanking him for meeting so many of the recommendations made by his committee. I hope noble Lords will not accuse me in turn of taking umbrage if I note that the speeches of noble Lords on Report stage of this Bill hardly reflected this attitude.

In particular, I should like to say a word about the "in lieu" business to which the noble Lord, Lord Cottisloe, referred in our last debate, and the noble Earl, Lord Haig, has mentioned today. The comments have gone wide of the mark. I feel very strongly that much of the concern over these proposals is based on a complete misunderstanding. There is no question of abandoning these provisions. The recommendation of the Select Committee was that it should be taken out of the hands of the Treasury. The Treasury has agreed to that. As the White Paper says, we have concluded that it would be more satisfactory if these arrangements were replaced by an expanded system of private treaty sales. We have given firm undertakings that the individual vendor will he no worse off financially than he would have been under the existing arrangements. New arrangements will be introduced to put prospective vendors in touch with institutions which might be interested in acquiring their property, and the acquiring institution will not have to contribute more to the acquisition than at present.

Given the strength of these undertakings, I cannot see what all the fuss is about. The only just complaint that the noble Lord has against the Government is that we have taken some time, and are still taking some time, to work out the right way to deal with this very complicated issue. We believe that we can devise a satisfactory scheme which will fulfil these undertakings; but we recognise that, for it to work well in practice, it must be acceptable to all those who might wish to make use of these provisions, and we are accordingly undertaking wide-ranging consultations. We have already had more than one discussion with museum directors. The Department of the Environment has had a meeting with the National Trust. We are continuing to discuss the matter with these people as we take advice from them and reconsider the detail of how best to achieve what we are all trying to achieve.

The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, said one thing which I think is true: quoting Mr. Attlee or somebody, this I think is irrevocable. Our timetable is to have the White Paper, when we put it into the form of a Bill, operating by 1980, and so a start has to be made now. I estimate, without making a promise, that we shall have a draft Bill some time after Easter, not I think in June but by the end of May. If we do that, even if it is only a First Reading, that is there for all time and that is what we are very anxious to achieve, because we all realise that there may be not a different Government but a different Minister for the Arts later on.

It is just worth making this point: the noble Earl, Lord Haig, said that we must have a satisfactory alternative for the "in lieu" procedure. That is what the delay is about. That is what we are going to achieve with the help of the various people with whom we are discussing the matter.

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, may I first of all thank my noble friends who have supported me, particularly my noble friend Lord Haig, who has fought his way through snow and ice bearing the device of support for the National Heritage Fund Bill which I very much welcome. I hope that the Government will take due note of all his remarks on the subject of the "in lieu" provisions. I have not dealt with it myself; it is extraneous to the Bill and, I would have thought, frankly, would have been dealt with in a separate document rather than a White Paper which purported to be dealing with the report of the Select Committee and the alternative Bill.

I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Gowrie for his very helpful remarks. I am tempted to say that I look forward to when he introduces his Bill quite soon—the sooner the better. As for the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, I must congratulate him. I think that today's is the longest contribution that he has made to the debates on this Bill since it started, and I am extremely glad that I have at long last almost provoked him into showing a little anger, perhaps even a little umbrage. The adjective of umbrage is "umbrageous" not "umbrageiferous", as he seemed to think at one stage.

He remarked that Mr. Arthur Jones, who was the chairman of the Select Committee, thanked the Prime Minister for meeting most of the proposals of the Select Committee. He omitted to mention that Mr. Jones himself produced a Bill called the National Heritage Fund Bill, which is why my Bill, rather quaintly, having been originally called the National Land Fund Bill is now called the National Heritage Fund (No. 2) Bill. Mr. Jones's Bill received a First Reading but the Second Reading was blocked in the Commons. I should like to know at which stage Mr. Jones, faced with the opposition of the Government, decided to withdraw his Bill. I did not withdraw my Bill, and I have no regrets whatsoever. We have caused the Minister to get to his feet more than once, and also we have produced from him almost a date when we shall see the Government's Bill. If he had taken that more co-operative attitude earlier on in these proceedings, it might have saved a little time.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed and sent to the Commons.